Navigating Baja: The Generosity of the Desert – Dispatch #5

The sound that jolted my awareness sounded like the roar of a jet fighter, so loud and clear, a throbbing staccato of baseline. Then it was gone. I was riding my motorcycle south on the old dirt section below San Felipe to Gonzaga Bay. The arrival of the roaring thunder, then the ensuing immaculate silence, had me wondering if it in fact had happened. Was that something I imagined? I looked left, right, up and down, and I was alone. Nothing near me could have made that stunning roar in the quiet landscape of the desert through which I sped along. Then, ahead, dropping below the rim of the extended visor of my helmet, I saw the source.

A twin-engine Cessna, swooping low into the horizon, my guess, 50 feet off the deck. It slowly rose and made a shallow bank away from the setting sun toward which I rode.  It must have cleared me by 25 feet when it passed.  The roar of its twin-jet turbine engines fading now droning in the distance like a harmless bug had shocked me, but hadn’t caused me to wreck thank my luck. Two hours later I pulled into Alphosinas, one of my favorite way stations on the peninsula which is nothing more than a couple cantinas in the middle of nowhere. There, meters from the entrance to the restaurant, was a twin-engine Cessna. I buttoned up my gear and walked inside. Two people were at the bar. It was instantly clear that they knew I was the rider and that I knew they were the pilot and passenger. A nod of the head sealed our introduction.

“I was so mad at him for doing that,” the young woman at the bar blurted out.

“It was exciting and an appreciated rush to break the monotony of the ride!” I retorted.

“It was crazy and dangerous” she said apologetically.

“It was. Yet here we sit, safe and content, sipping a cold margarita.”

“Can we buy you dinner at least?”

“We’re the only ones here,” I shrugged and smiled. “It makes sense we would share a meal.”

This happenstance is just another normal event in the Baja.

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Chris Mathias leads the group up the canyon at Aguas Calientes, Baja, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe

We all have different standards that inform us in our lives and midst our interactions with those we encounter. We derive meaning from everything we perceive. A glance means this; a nod means that, the triggers are limitless to how we see and interact with the world around us. My “norms,” my “standards,” my “meanings” are so regularly and consistently challenged here in Baja, that I am constantly awake in a glorious way when I am south of the border. I have had car engines catch fire, boats swamped in offshore gales, motorbikes die in the middle of nowhere. Without exception I have been received, discovered, or rescued by a passerby, whether they be another wayward expat or a kind and generous local.

I have been traveling Baja since 1978. Those who visit me at my home in Los Barilles, a small town on southeast side of the peninsula, marvel at my collection of books detailing the landscape of this land of desert, sea, and sky. Titles from Canon, Peacock, Roberts, the journals of the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and crew members of Cabrillo and Vizcaino dot my shelves. I have now traveled the length of the Baja Peninsula by motorcycle, car, truck, plane, sailboat, sea kayak, and outrigger canoe, and each time has given me infinitely more insight into the possibility for an adventurous and genuinely lived life. After many years of living in the U.S. and chasing the “American Dream,” I have found myself on a small piece of land living in a renovated Airstream trailer with my kitchen and dining room without walls and covered by a simple palm-frond palapa and I am at ease.

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A full moon rises over Baja California, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe

I wander up and down the 1,000-mile length of the peninsula a few times a year at least, and find myself becoming more enamored with this landscape, its people, and the places I have visited but continue to rediscover as well as those new to me. Without exception, each trip has been uniquely authentic and has introduced me to rugged beauty and an affinity for a landscape so filled with spikes and stickers that most every creature has some hypodermic armament that stands guard over its access or supply of water.  It is hot, cold, stark, quiet, diverse, and most certainly lightly inhabited by us humans—at least the middle 800 miles from Ensenda south to La Paz.  It is this middle ground—of Dr. Suesse trees (Boojum), small ranches where gauchos irk out a living from the dry earth, where sheep whose horns grow long and curled with age and ringtail cats call from the bush—that graces my dreams and calls me back south again and again. At night the Milky Way is so bright that little imagination is needed to picture us on the edge of that great galactic spiral. The shadows of the Saguaro cactus are eerie and human-like standing like soldiers against the brightly lit stars of the night sky. The spontaneous and deadly flash floods are abundant and scar the land in their wake, leaving veins of a wash like a history of water that comes and is gone as quickly as it fell from the sky. There are pine forests and lakes at Laguna Hansen, and in the heights of Picacho del Diablo at over 10,000 feet, you can regularly see snow. The golden throne of la Gran Trona Blanca, a 5,000-foot east facing slope, is as striking as some vistas in Yosemite, and canons little visited show undisturbed evidence of the first peoples, our ancestral lineage that wandered these same deserts and coasts 11,000 years ago.

The Baja is not a land protected by law, at least not man’s law. The laws of the land, the laws of the desert, survival and availability of water food, and cerveza are the dictators that rule Baja del Sur. It is remote, hot, dry, and it keeps our seemingly ever-softening species at bay. Yet the air has fragrances of sweet and sage, the skies are alive with birds of prey on their eternal migrations south then north. The seas have moods as quick to turn as a teenager, and the colors that paint the landscape are more sublime, in the deep reds of the mesas at sunset and, the vermillion blue of the sea under the midday sun, than any I’ve known. The people of the ranches have provided me shelter, aid, meals, tools, and no matter where I find myself I have never been turned away. The value of a friendly neighbor has never been more magnified in my eyes than it has in my time in Baja, and Mexico. When I am stopped on the side of the road, the very next car stops to learn of my status.  This is not behavior I grew used with on the north side of the border.  There is no commercial reliance on Trip Advisor or AAA. A broken axle is an opportunity to meet a new friend and invite them in for a drink or meal, not a problem.  Just this week I was told by a Mexican friend, Luis, that they have a phrase for the frantic and sometimes overbearing behavior that our American culture has earned abroad,  tiene la luna, which means ‘to have the moon’ in reference to the ups and downs of some people’s mood swings. “For so many of you Americans, everything is good or bad, for us Mexicans, it’s just life.”

In a land of little water, little money, few resources, I have been treated with a generosity of spirit that formed and forms my practice of living. In Baja, the realization of a life less has brought me more. Much more than I could have imagined.

The Adventurists blog series “Navigating Baja” is sponsored by OluKai, which provided footwear for this adventure.